Sort the sublime from the ridiculous

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Fareena Alam recommends resources that will broaden and deepen the usual image of Islam that is presented in the West

Type the word "Islam" into Google and it returns 9,350,000 hits - a mind boggling hodgepodge of sites representing a dizzying range of interpretations and opinions ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous to the downright malicious.

The daily headlines report the war on terror, Iraq and the possibility of home-grown al-Qaeda terrorism on British soil. Islam and Muslim aren't just at the centre of the story - they are the story. But a YouGov poll commissioned by the Islamic Society of Britain showed 64 per cent of Britons felt they knew "not very much" about Britain's Muslim community and what they did know came largely from television and newspapers.

How do educators deal with this information deficit when there seem to be almost too many places to go for answers?

Each month at the Muslim magazine Q-News, we receive dozens of calls from teachers in search of information that will help their students understand Islam and Muslims better. After all, Muslims constitute the second largest faith community in Britain. As British Muslims develop a more sophisticated sense of their own identity, distinct from the dated albeit convenient "Asian" categorisation, callers have a hunch that there is more to British Islam than beards, scarves, halal meat and Abu Hamza. They are looking for sources of information that go beyond polemic and platitude and will help them get some genuine answers.

Qur'an translations

In the months after September 11, 2001, an unlikely book appeared on bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic.

English translations of the Qur'an flew off the shelves, as a confused West turned to what Muslims believe to be the book containing God's own words in an effort to understand the faith that the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks called their own. If you're going to do the same, get a good translation.

Thomas Cleary, the celebrated translator of sacred texts from eastern traditions, has recently completed a translation to widespread acclaim for his subtle style. Cleary's translation avoids the use of the male pronoun when referring to God, giving the English a modern accessibility lacking in many other translations.

Muhammad Abdel Haleem's translation, published by Oxford University Press, has also been praised for its use of modern free and straightforward English prose. Its useful introductory note offers a brief history of the revelation and compilation of the Qur'an and deals with questions of interpretation such as the meaning of jihad, the representation of women, and relations with other faiths.

Muhammad Asad's The Message of the Qur'an is a clear and powerful exposition of the meanings of the Arabic original, beautifully republished earlier this year by the Book Foundation. Asad supplements his translation with commentary, drawing on classical sources of exegesis largely unavailable in English. The availability of good translations also means that a new generation of non-Arabic speaking Muslims will not be at the mercy of poor translations and will be able to read their sacred book knowing it is interpreted to take into account their modern linguistic sensibilities.

Books

There are many introductory books on Islam and it can be frustrating choosing one that is authoritative, critical yet sensitive to Muslim sensibilities.

Many volumes produced in the Muslim world suffer from polemic and literalist ideology that make Islam largely inaccessible to the modern non-Muslim reader. British Muslim Charles le Gai Eaton's seminal Islam and the Destiny of Man is at once poetic and illustrative, drawing on the rich classical heritage of the Islamic tradition to take the reader into the spiritual heart of Islam, addressing difficult theological and philosophical questions with clarity and nuance.

Swiss journalist Roger Du Pasquier's Unveiling Islam presents the beliefs and tenets of the faith clearly and concisely without sacrificing depth and references to sacred texts and sources. For a biography of Muhammad, no book matches Martin Lings's classic work, Muhammad. It is based on the earliest sources and reads like a novel.

Other sources include the critically acclaimed works of Karen Armstrong and John Esposito. New releases also include the Historical Atlas of the Islamic World and the re-released No Nonsense Guide to Islam. Not to be left out is Yahya Emerick's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam, a good basic book that answers many typical questions.

Journals

Librarians seeking to understand the British Muslim community would be wise to get their hands on the main Muslim periodicals.

In addition to Q-News, the list includes Muslim News (a monthly newspaper), Emel (a bi-monthly lifestyle magazine), Muslim Weekly (the only weekly Muslim newspaper), Islamica (an intelligent and beautifully produced quarterly), and Seasons (an accessible American journal that presents relevant scholarly writing on Islam in the modern world). Annual subscriptions to all four will cost no more than pound;130 in total and a great deal will be learned about what makes the community tick.

Internet

For general articles on Islam in an interfaith context, try the popular www.beliefnet.com. There are many web portals that are packed with information and links, but few match the Islam website (www.arches.uga.edu godlas) run by professor Alan Godlas from the University of Georgia. Its breadth, depth and scholarly, yet accessible and honest, coverage of the whole spectrum of the Muslim spiritual, theological, cultural and artistic experience are stunning. It is regularly updated and you will undoubtedly visit it regularly. Of particular interest are the excellent sections on Sufism and Islamic art and culture.

For essays on specific areas of Muslim theology, jurisprudence and belief, as well as articles on modern issues, www.masud.co.uk is well worth a visit. For a good topical approach to Islam try www.themodernreligion.com

(a site I helped found). For news on Muslims in Europe and beyond www.islamonline.net is a good starting point.

www.deenport.com is a website largely written by young Muslims - participate in discussions on the lively message board or explore the travel, photo gallery, events listing and news sections. The Deenport confident and creative approach is a refreshing change from the usual portrayal of young Muslims as militant and disengaged from larger British society.

www.muslimwakeup.com features the often risque writing of the new progressive Muslim movement. Their hotly contested views may not have mainstream support even among "moderate" Muslims, but the writing and reporting on current trends is often fresh, witty and certainly challenging. No issue is taboo here.

As you weave yourself through the web, these sites will prove to be a launching pad to the worlds of Islam on the information superhighway.

New translations

The Qur'an: A New Translation by Thomas Cleary, Starlatch Press Pounds 16.50

The Qur'an, by Muhammad Abdel Haleem, Oxford University Press pound;14.99

The Message of the Qur'an by Muhammad Asad, the Book Foundation pound;30

Books

Islam and the Destiny of Man by Charles le Gai Eaton, State University of New York Press pound;17.25

Unveiling Islam by Roger Du Pasquier, the Islamic Texts Society Pounds 9.99

Muhammad, by Martin Lings, the Islamic Texts Society pound;18.99

Historical Atlas of the Islamic World, Oxford University Press pound;25

No Nonsense Guide to Islam, Verso pound;7

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam by Yahya Emerick, Alpha Books pound;12.99

Journals

Q-News www.q-news.com

Muslim News www.muslimnews.co.uk

Emel www.emelmagazine.co.uk

Muslim Weekly www.themuslimweekly.com

Islamica www.islamicamagazine.com

Seasons www.zaytuna.orgseasons.html

Fareena Alam is managing editor of Q-News

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